The case against caucuses is that they take hours, often at night, and thus disproportionately attract the ideologically fervid -- not what the Democratic Party needs. The case against New Hampshire's primary is that its power is disproportionate for a state so unrepresentative of America's demographic complexities. The case for New Hampshire can be put in a name: Gene McCarthy. The small state gives an unknown underdog challenger, practicing retail politics, a fighting chance.
McCarthy's insurgency, the most luminous memory of many aging liberals, would today be impossible -- criminal, actually -- thanks to the recent "reform" most cherished by liberals, the McCain-Feingold campaign regulations. McCarthy's audacious challenge to an incumbent president was utterly dependent on large early contributions from five rich liberals.
Stewart Mott's $210,000 would be more than $1.2 million in today's dollars.
McCain-Feingold codifies two absurdities: large contributions are inherently evil, and political money can be limited without limiting political speech. McCain-Feingold criminalizes the sort of seed money that enabled McCarthy to be heard. Under McCain-Feingold's current limit of $2,100 per contributor, McCarthy's top five contributors combined could have given just $10,500, which in 1968 dollars would have been just $1,834.30. But, then, McCain-Feingold was written by incumbents to protect what they cherish: themselves.
McCarthy first seized national attention with a theatrical act, a gesture of elegant futility. At the 1960 convention, when John Kennedy's nomination was already certain, McCarthy delivered an eloquent philippic urging a third nomination for the man who had been trounced in 1952 and 1956, Adlai Stevenson.
Witty, elegant and problematic, Stevenson was the intelligentsia's darling and a harbinger of liberalism curdled by condescension toward ordinary Americans. When an aide assured Stevenson he had the votes of thinking people, Stevenson quipped: But I need a majority. A majority of the disdained?
McCarthy's acerbic wit sometimes slid into unpleasantness, as when, after Gov. George Romney, the Michigan Republican, said that briefers in Vietnam had ``brainwashed'' him, McCarthy said that surely a light rinse would have sufficed. McCarthy's wit revealed an aptitude for condescension, an aptitude that charmed intellectuals but not Americans condescended to.
A talented poet, McCarthy's mordant "The Tamarack'' surely summarized his experience of being beaten by Robert Kennedy after New Hampshire:
The tamarack tree is the saddest tree of all;
it is the first tree to invade the swamp,
and when it makes the soil dry enough,
the other trees come and kill it.
Never mind his subsequent lackadaisical presidential campaigns. After 1968, he adhered to the fourth of the commandments in his "10 Commandments":
Do not relight a candle
whose flame has drowned
in its own excess of wax.
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